Have you ever considered that there is actually a correlation between the different sounds we pronounce as we speak and the geographical characteristics of the places where we live? What would you think if your mother tongue was not only influenced by ethnic origins and immigration patterns, but also by geography? Is there a difference between the sounds produced by people living in mountainous areas and the ones created by people residing in the plains that is simply based on location and nothing else? In a study published last year in the journal PLoS ONE, Caleb Everett, an anthropological linguist at the University of Miami, argued that geography also plays a significant role in speech patterns. Now tell me where you live and I’ll tell you how you speak
Altitude and Ejective Sounds
With the help of an online database that categorizes languages according to their features, Everett analyzed the locations of 592 of the world’s approximately 7,000 languages. During his research, he discovered that 92 of the languages he was studying contained ejective consonants. In other words, these consonants are articulated with an intensive burst of air and do not resemble any sounds found in the English language. Most of the languages with these kinds of consonants are spoken in the North American Cordillera, the Andes and the Andean altiplano, the Ethiopian highlands, the plateau of the East African Rift, the southern African plateau, the Javakheti plateau, and the Caucasus range. These are all high-altitude regions, situated 1,500 meters above sea level.
These 92 languages do not all belong to the same family, which means that this common trait has nothing to do with the inherent characteristics of the language family. Everett added that the ejective sounds are not created with air being expelled from the lungs, and as a result, the loss of water while speaking is dramatically reduced. Therefore, the origin of the sounds could be related to the way people adapted their languages to the dryness of their environments.
John Fought’s Pioneering Research
Everett’s effort to relate geographical and linguistic variables is not the first example of such a study. In 2004, John Fought, an American linguist, published his study, “Sonority and Climate in a World Sample of Languages: Findings and Prospects.”
In his research, Fought compared the indigenous languages of subtropical and tropical climates to the ones spoken in cold and temperate zones. To his surprise, the former showed higher levels of sonority in phonetic segments, especially in vowels, thus increasing the carrying power of the speech sounds and improving the chances of being heard at a distance.
Fought and other collaborators came to the conclusion that climate definitely influences and shapes the sounds of languages. As speakers in tropical and subtropical areas perform many of their everyday chores in the outdoors, most of their verbal communication is transmitted over distances. Therefore, messages need to be relatively intelligible, even if speakers are not close to one another. High sonority satisfies this need due to its acoustic functional advantage.
Linguists and anthropological linguists are still looking into the connections that seem to exist between geography, climate, and language. Even though as of today no final conclusion has been reached, it is definitely interesting to learn that language families and migration waves are not the only factors that shape the sounds of our mother tongues.